Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Criticism of Objective/Materialist Science
Two Types of Science: Distancing from or Participating in the Phenomenon
This view works wonderfully, I think, across the grain. The whole idea of science is, of course, based on objectification-to become objective in your knowing, which typically means distancing. Conventional science objectifies by taking an experience and replacing it by a set of more “fundamental” objects such as atoms, molecules, interactions, and so forth. So, as opposed to the blue of the sky, physics says it’s Mie scattering and the blue results from small, polarizable molecules interacting with electromagnetic fields, setting up secondary waves. This leads to a differential scattering cross-section with a dependence on the fourth power of the frequency. In this way you have an objectified account. And it’s now been shorn from the dangers of my subjective experience. Namely, I see blue. And I like blue a lot or whatever other subjective association it might be.
Goethe took a very different approach. He was aware of the dangers of my interpretation and personalization or becoming subjective in a problematic way. So he sought to mitigate those dangers in a variety of ways. But, as I see it, his resolution of the problem was contrary to the above goal of objectification. Rather than becoming distant from phenomena by taking models as the intermediary, Goethe sought to refine and cultivate the investigator’s capacities for perception.
Science says to step back and gain a distance, because you’re inevitably going to make a mess of that which you are investigating. Goethe said, no, become more graceful, become more delicate in your observing. He called it a delicate empiricism. He said that there exists a delicate empiricism in which the observer becomes united with the observed, thereby becoming true theory. He said this ability belongs to a very highly cultivated age in the future.
So this delicate empiricism allows one to come close to the phenomenon under investigation, as opposed to having to move further away. One actually unites with the object under observation. So, rather than disconnecting from nature, one is participating it. Through that participation, something happens. Here’s one of the other elements from Goethe that is key for me, what I call Bildung, which has two meanings in German: on the one hand it means education, but really it means formation.
So by attending to an object or attending to phenomena, one moves into and participates in that phenomenon and, as a consequence, brings an activity into one’s self, which is normally outside. I see the blue; I bring the blue into my self. There’s a blue experience. That blue experience actually cultivates something in me. The closer I attend, the more shades of blue I will be able to discern. The conditions of appearance will become more apparent. So, through the process of attention, there’s also a process in me of transformation.
Goethe said that, “every object well-contemplated creates an organ within us.” So, contemplate the object well; that creates a capacity within. That capacity is then required for the last step of perceiving the archetypal phenomenon. If you don’t have the organ, you won’t be able to perceive it; you’ll just see the blue sky.
So there’s a kind of hermeneutic circle in which I attend to the outside with the capacities I presently have. That attention then cultivates capacities within that are built on the rudimentary-you might say elementary-forms of capacities and organs I currently have. It cultivates them and develops them into a new, more vigorous and attentive form of cognition. I bring these to bear on the phenomenon before me, and it goes again through another cycle.
Goethe’s notion of science is transformative. You do not come with a pre-existing set of capacities that include, say, rational, deductive capacities, as well as eyes and ears and so on-the physical senses. Rather there’s a kind of organic, dynamic sense of the human being and the human being’s potential. That potential is cultivated and actuated through an active engagement with the world.